William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and “Sitting Bull” the Hunkpapa Lakota Medicine Man were two of the most famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) celebrities of post-Civil War America, and their rarified positions seeded their unlikely bond.
It was a huge “get” to book Sitting Bull, who had defiantly led his people to Canada for four years before starvation forced them to surrender their ponies, guns, and freedom to US Army demands and reservation rule. Brisk ticket sales measured the public’s fascination with the warrior once cursed as Public Enemy No. 1.
According to Stillman, traveling shows like “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” offered the only way off the reservation: “They got to hit the road and be free again, within a limited frame of reference.… Cody was spinning out this American scripture and permitting cowboys and Indians to live inside this world that was being obliterated on the outside.”
But he could not understand how a culture whose weapons had defeated his people could not take care of its own; according to Stillman, he would “sometimes give away his salary” to orphans he encountered on the street.
Were he alive today he’d likely exhibit a rock star’s branding savvy. Buffalo Bill paid high tribute when he told a Minnesota reporter that “no white man could convince his people to follow him as they starved” as Sitting Bull had done.